Mastering the Little Atrocities

by Emily Rapp


Charles Baxter is the highly acclaimed author of seven works of fiction (including The Feast of Love, Believers, Harmony of the World, Through the Safety Net), a book of poetry (Imaginary Paintings), and a collection of essays about fiction (Burning Down the House). His most recent novel, Saul and Patsy, was published in 2003. He teaches at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and delivered a lecture at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin this spring. Later, he spoke to the Observer. Excerpts follow:

Texas Observer: Did you grow up in an environment where people told stories?

Charles Baxter: My stepfather liked to sit around the table and tell stories —anecdotes, jokes. It wasn’t exactly conversation but it was the way that he felt the dinner hour should go. There’s a tradition of this in the South, people who are good raconteurs. We lived out in the middle of nowhere, and I didn’t really have many neighbors. was a very well-read man and there was a big library in the house, so I basically had two choices: I could go out and play or I could read. The first writer who really made an impression on me was Thomas Hardy—those large, long, sorrowful novels, and in college I discovered the Russians whom I still read. Chekhov’s stories and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. When I was actually beginning to practice writing, I was drawn in two directions. One was toward very lush writing by Malcolm Lowery, F. Scott Fitzgerald, but in the other direction toward a writer from whom I think I’ve learned the most about how actually to write a story—a writer from Texas, Katherine Anne Porter. Stories like “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,†or particularly “Noon Wine.†She taught me a lot; much more than I think any other short story writer, about how to structure a story, how to get a characterization on the page, how to get in and out of a scene efficiently, and how to create conflict in a way that’s really plausible. Later in my life I’ve been particularly drawn toward a writer named William Maxwell. I’ve just co-edited an anthology of memories and appreciations about him. I wish I had written his book, So Long, See You Tomorrow. I wish I had written They Came Like Swallows. I mean, if you live a life as a writer, half the time you think, “Oh, I just wish I had done that.†But you can damage yourself if you think that too much. Just do what you can.

TO: I want to talk a little bit about the kinds of things you were doing in Feast of Love. The first thing that particularly struck me about the book was the way that you interpret physical gestures, intimate gestures; for example, the way a person puts their hand on someone’s knee at a certain time means something, while at another time it means something else.

CB: I think that when you sit down to write—and when you sit down to read—you watch and wait for what I would call signature actions: the sorts of things that that person does, usually under stress but not always, as a sign of who that person is. It may be that that comes from poetry and the effort to boil things down to the essence of something, but I think that it’s also just what a writer ought to be doing to get the reader into the scene. If I am sitting here with you, and I’m speaking the way that I am and using my hands in a particular way, well that tells you one thing. If my voice changes and if suddenly I’m no longer looking you in the eye and I’m looking over there, all of these things matter. These features of writing are too often, or let’s say, are often forgotten.

TO: I think that’s so important because I think what we’re struggling with now in this country is the way that people are characterized for us, not on the page, but on the television screen or in the media. We don’t get that wonderful, whole vision of the person, we just get stereotypes.

CB: I have to say I think this is particularly true in America about class, a feature of our lives here that is sometimes thought to be invisible. But isn’t invisible at all and when you bring a character into a story who is from, let’s say a blue-collar milieu, you have to be very careful that you’re not resorting to various stereotypes. I’ll give you an example. In my workshop last week, a woman goes to a fast food place where a guy from her high school class works. And in the workshop, everybody said, “This guy’s a loser,†and I said, “Why is he a loser?†“Well, he’s a loser because he’s working in this minimum wage job.†And I said, “Why are you saying that his essence is that of being a loser because he has a job like this?†You know, a lot of people have jobs like this; it does not mean that they’re losers. It’s not the business of the writer to take a stamp pad and write “loser†on the forehead of a character. It’s the job of the writer to present everybody in the fullness of their humanity. Part of what really good writers do is to look again at something that has been looked at often and maybe the wrong way.

TO: In Saul and Patsy, there’s a hugely violent act that happens. You don’t go into horrible detail, you just show the effects it had on the people who had to live in the aftermath of that actual scene happening right in front of them. It’s so different— in fact it’s the exact opposite—of what we get from media images of violence. We’re bombarded with these things and have no way to process them, so we simply step away from the television and trot off into the sunshine.

CB: Yeah. In a culture in which everything is sexualized, there’s a good chance that the sex is being used to sell something. It’s being used not only to sell something but to sell you on the idea that you should acquire something so that you can have this type of experience. To some degree violence is presented as both a spectacle—since we’re living in a society of the spectacle. It’s fun to look at, it’s exciting, it’s the solution to something. But in my books, sex isn’t there to sell you on anything, and the violence, rather than solving something or presenting an interesting spectacle, instead is, in its way enigmatic. Saul and Patsy, a good deal of that book is about the aftermath of violence and the inability of a community to grieve somebody who was not handsome, was not smart, was not all-American, was not an achiever. In some ways the demons that arise in that book have to do with the fact that he (Gordy) hasn’t been grieved and that’s what I think Saul has to teach those kids at the end. I was very much affected after the bombings in Madrid that in Spain there was a day of national mourning in which people went outside and publicly grieved—mourned—the lives that were lost. And I thought that is not something this country does very well. We just think of who are we going to get back at? How are we doing to manage payback?

There’s a lot of what I call buried religious impulse and material in those stories, probably the most in a book of mine called Believers, but it’s in the other ones, too. I felt, for example, in Saul and Patsy, that after Gordy Himmelman commits suicide, that in fact you can’t just say, “Oh that’s a tragedy,†and then go on to something else. That it has to have an aftermath, and it has to have a move that looks like redemption, but which doesn’t come from any of the traditional sources of that. I’m very suspicious of the idea of redemption. I think more often than not it’s processed through sentimentality, so I felt that I had to leave enough that was unsolved so that you wouldn’t think that there had been an enormous epiphany where all the problems were solved. Because that, it seemed to me, would be so clearly sentimental that nobody would believe it. As it is, one commentator on the book says, “Oh, what does Baxter know about evil—he’s a Midwesterner.†He said, basically this book is all about innocence. Well, it is and it isn’t. I mean, I know perfectly well what he’s talking about; I mean, it is a small city. The scale of the story is not large. There are not atrocities in the sense that we usually use that word, but it seems to me that every writer chooses the scale model and mine was not huge, but it wasn’t tiny, either. It was at a scale I could manage.

TO: You speak directly to the self-consciousness in Feast of Love. I don’t want to use the word “clever,†meaning a manipulative writerly device, but when did you decide to write yourself into the book?

CB: Well, I mean, fairly early on I decided that to tell that story properly, it had to come through the voices of the characters and once I decided that, I knew I had a big technical problem on my hands, which was who’s listening? Now it’s a very old form—the Decameron and in some ways, the Canterbury Tales, arise from people telling stories, but I thought in this case, “Who’s listening?†Even in Calvino’s “If On Winter’s Night a Traveler,†that these people are marooned for the evening in one place and the only thing I could think of was the person listening to all of this was me. A writer with a writing block and insomnia walking around at night, scrounges up and finds people who will tell him stories about their love lives. It’s quite implausible in its way because men almost will never tell anyone about their love lives, but I had to make that seem as if it could happen. David can’t do it. He only comes up in the novel once and he talks about his love life by talking about his health and by talking about hunting. Here’s a guy who’s been having an affair and is desperately drawn toward this woman, but can hardly talk about it and what does he do? Well, he’s been a hunter, but now he doesn’t want to do that anymore and then he has a medical thing with his throat, and that causes him to leave his wife. It’s all he can talk about. I always have trouble with guys like that, because they’re hard to get into stories; they’re not loquacious, they don’t put their feelings out where you can find them. So you kind of have to maneuver them into or push them into doing that.

TO: Bradley doesn’t express his emotions, either. He’s also quite closed, but sweeter in a way.

CB: Yeah, he’s a more sort of Woody Allen character and he’s a complainer, but he does, in his way, get around to telling you what happens. Bradley is the kind of guy who kind of has to deal with whatever it is he gets. TO: I loved that about him, and I loved the end. I thought if this character doesn’t find some happiness, as a reader I’m going to be so angry. CB: He does, and when he does he can’t talk about it.

TO: You certainly can’t talk about happiness as easily as you can about unhappiness.

CB: Right. You can’t talk about happiness; it’s bad luck.

Former Observer intern Emily Rapp received her MFA in May from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas-Austin.